Are Referendums Democratic?

In the wake of the Brexit vote many voices in the media proclaimed that direct democracy leads to a tyranny of the majority, even mob rule.

In this post I’ll be considering whether this is the case, and suggesting some conditions I feel are needed to have a fair referendum.

For me the question of whether referendums are a workable and fair way to make decisions is of central importance to what I write. You could say I’m engaged in a long term thought experiment, and my counter-factual East Berlin Series is the outcome of that experiment.

The question for this thought experiment is simple: could the ideas for direct democracy that were floated in the GDR in 1989 actually be put into practice?

The answers to such a simple question are, of course, many and complex.

Slogan pasted on East German parliament - Democracy Here and Now!
“Democracy now and here” pasted onto the East German Parliament

When we see how, in real life, a referendum can divide a society then we need to press pause and reassess our theories and ideas.

When we see how  a referendum can divide society then we need to press pause.

As with many others my knee-jerk reaction to the Brexit referendum was shock—not so much at the result, but at how much it divided people, how it had encouraged people to openly act on such prejudices as racism and xenophobia.

Of course, it was clear at the time just how many—mostly ‘politicians’—used the referendum to boost their own egos/brands/fortunes. But further reflection raises other concerns about whether the referendum was ‘democratic’.

Conditions for good decisions

For good decisions to be made (whether in a family, at work or in a whole country) I believe certain conditions need to be met, among these are:

  1. clear and fair process to reach the decision,
  2. the information we need to make that decision,
  3. the need to be open to the arguments of others.

That all may sound rather reasonable, common sense even—indeed this pretty much outlines the protocol that the UK parliament professes to work by.

But there are also some very subjective aspects to those conditions—how on earth do we define ‘fair’? Just how much information do we need—and how do we gain that information?

Despite the subjective nature of these conditions I’d like to make a quick assessment of how the Brexit referendum measures up to them.

1. Clear and fair process

On the face of it the terms of the referendum were, initially, clear enough: an advisory vote by the electorate. Since it was to be nothing more than an official straw poll there was no need for any quorum to be set, or super-majority to be reached.

We’re being told that Brexit Means Brexit, that democracy has spoken.
So far, so clear, so fair.

Yet somehow, the goalposts shifted. Once the results were in the referendum was treated, not as advisory, but binding. And now the politicians say they need to act accordingly, although exactly how they should act was never put to the people–no plan was ever developed for Brexit.

If you’ve read any of my books you’ll know I’m a huge fan of direct democracy, and you may ask whether I agree that the Brexit vote should be implemented. I’d probably ask in return whether (now that those goalposts have shifted) the Brexit vote passes the ‘Clear And Fair Process’ test?

The process was retro-actively changed (a non-binding, advisory poll became binding). But is that enough to make it an unfair process?

Before answering that question let’s take a quick look at how referendums are usually held.

Quora and supermajorities

Ask any constitutional expert … Hang on, remember how experts were told to go stuff their opinions during the referendum campaign? OK, never mind the experts, let’s ask any person who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about how a large and varied group can make decisions. Let’s listen to them telling us that things like quora and super-majorities are pretty damn essential.

Quorum: The minimum number of voters for a group to officially conduct business and to cast votes. According to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, the “requirement for a quorum is protection against unrepresentative action in the name of the body by an unduly small number of persons.” (Or, in English: to stop the tail wagging the dog.)

Super-majority: Any qualified majority (eg two-thirds) specified in advance of a vote, required for the vote to be passed.

But why? Surely it’s undemocratic to impose conditions such as a minimum number of voters, or the size of the majority needed before a result is binding?

Scottish Devolution Referendum 1979

Back in 1979 there was a referendum on Scottish devolution. 52% of votes were in favour of devolution, but it didn’t happen at that time. Although a majority of those who turned out to vote wanted devolution they didn’t manage to reach the 40% quorum imposed by London.

It was felt by some that the 40% hurdle was merely a way for Westminster to make it difficult, almost impossible, for Scots to achieve devolution.Sandwich-board encouraging a yes vote for Scottish devolution in 1979

But look at it a different way: although over half (52%) of those voting wanted devolution, only 32.9% of the Scottish electorate actually voted for it. Which means over two-thirds of voters and potential voters didn’t want devolution, didn’t vote, or for some reason were unable to vote on the day.

Did you notice the 52% figure? Yes, same result, back in 1979, very different outcome. Whether or not I disagree that Scotland should have been allowed devolution back then, I believe that if you want to make some major changes then common-sense and respectful behaviour demands that you first make sure that  most people are (at the very least) OK with what’s being planned.

Brexit statistics

So what proportion of people voted for Brexit? The figure we’ve all heard is that 52% of people want Brexit. But actually, only 52% of those who actually voted said they wanted to leave the EU. This translates into 37% of the registered electorate (ie just over a third of those who could have voted).

Less than 26% of the actual population of the UK voted for Brexit.
If we do some more back-of-envelope maths to account for non-voters—those not registered to vote (even if they could have been), and those not allowed to vote (too young, too foreign or those who were denied a vote due to administrative cock-ups)—then we end up with the result that around 26% of the actual population of the UK voted for Brexit.

Should the desires of a quarter of the population be allowed to change the future of the whole country in such a drastic way?

graphic showing proportion of population voting for Brexit as pie chart

(And in case you want them, here’s the figures for your own back-of-envelope calculations: 2011 Census: 63,182,000 residents, registered electors in 2015: 44,722,000, voter turnout: 72% – figures from UK Office of National Statistics and the Electoral Commission.)

Westminster Majorities?

It’s of no real surprise to me that the politicians in Westminster are keen to implement (or at least to appear to implement) the decision of the Brexit ‘majority’. Their own credibility as ‘democratically elected’ representatives of the country also relies on extremely low levels of electoral support: looking at the 2015 general election we see that just 24% of registered electors (a mere 17% of the population) voted for the Conservative government that started the Brexit ball rolling.

Previous elections show a similar picture: in 2010 the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who formed a coalition after the election) managed to gain a whopping 39% of potential votes between them (still only 29% of the general population), while in 2005, 21% of electors (16% of population) voted for the Blair government.

We can see that the proportion of votes cast in a particular way (like the 52% for Brexit) tells us only part of the story. A quick look at the wider context—what proportion of eligible voters or the whole population wanted a particular thing—gives us a clearer picture of why many believe quoras and supermajorities are essential if we wish to ensure that a significant proportion of voters (or the general population) agree with the outcome.

2. Information

Anja Reschke, journalist at ARD (the German equivalent of the BBC) raises an important question: are the general public able to make reasonable decisions on such complex questions as whether the UK should leave the EU?

She comes to the conclusion that the general public aren’t in a position to make important decisions. But I’d point out that politicians are also ordinary people.

The differences between them and the ‘general public’ are merely that:

  1. they have access to information and advice,
  2. they have some time to think about the issues, and
  3. they know that their voice counts, which makes them more likely to be motivated to inform themselves and to vote.

In other words, politicians are no different from the general public—they’ve not been trained in rational decision making, they don’t have super powers of intellect and knowledge (although admittedly they are generally more privileged than the average person, but this isn’t a necessary qualification). The general public are just as able to understand and make decisions on complex issues, providing they too are provided with information and a bit of time to think about it.

Were we, the general public, provided with clear and honest information?
During the referendum campaign we were certainly provided with lots of opinions, but was it actually information—the kind of information which we need when making an important decision?

Much has already been written about the quality of information we received from media and politicians, and I think it’s justified to conclude that we, the general public were not provided with clear and honest information.

Even for a cynic such as myself it was shocking to see the half-truths, the untruths and outright lies being peddled at the time (and since). No amount of schadenfreude at the back-peddling by the media and politicians in the week after the referendum could ever make up for the way the manipulation damaged the democratic credentials of the referendum.

3. Listening to the arguments of others

Well, obviously this is a biggy. Many other commentators have pointed out how the vote was pretty much split along lines of class and privilege, there have been claims that the vote for Brexit was a protest vote by the disenfranchised.

In the face of such divisions is it realistic to expect that the various parts of society can listen to each other with an open ear and an open mind?

Many would claim that the answer lies in overcoming the economic divisions in society, and while that is undoubtedly part of the solution, I’d also argue that our ‘democratic’ system needs a radical overhaul.

A session of Prime Minister’s Questions is more reminiscent of a playground argument than a reasoned debate.
I’ve already pointed out that the UK parliament supposedly recognises conditions pretty similar to the ones I’m suggesting—yet a quick look at UK politics reveals the lack of respect, the overtly tendentious attitudes and the uncompromising language of MPs and their supporters. A session of Prime Minister’s Questions can be more reminiscent of a playground argument (I’m not listening, na-na-nah, stick tongue out, pull faces, score an arcane point, try to be witty, friends back you up with cheers and hoots) than a reasoned debate by people who are serious about their responsibilities to their electorate and country.

House of Commons during a debate - only a handful of MPs present
Our MPs having a fair and open debate.
In the UK the politicians don’t provide a good example of how to do democracy.
In the UK the professionals—the ones who make the rules for the rest of us—don’t provide a good example of how to do debates properly. And this partisan attitude towards making decision goes right through our society. We’re encouraged to think in terms of yes/no, black/white, Conservative/Labour. There always seems to be winners and losers, right and wrong.

Real life is rarely, if ever, that simple, and this attitude doesn’t encourage an open debate or good decisions.

Where there is voting there is always going to be a majority and a minority. Often the minority pretends to be a majority (like at election time, or in the Brexit referendum—see the statistics above), leaving large parts of the population feeling ignored and disenfranchised.

Why are we then surprised if the disenfranchised don’t want to listen to our wonderful arguments (whichever arguments they are, and whatever side we are on)?

Should we allow referendums? And if so, how?

Despite what I said above about how voting always results in losers, I feel that referendums have a part to play in a democracy. Smaller units of society can use different (and more inclusive) ways of making decisions that ensure that all voices are heard. It’s easier to have fair debates in smaller groups, and what a neighbour says feels a lot more relevant than the viewpoint of someone living in a city at the other end of the country.

But but how can we scale this up? How do we take into account the arguments of several million people? Referendums are one of the tools in the box for such a situation.

In the world of Stealing The Future referendums are a way to check the big decisions with all residents of the country. But in contrast to the Brexit referendum the process is clearly laid out, includes checks and balances (the so-called double majority of quorums plus super-majority), questions don’t have to be of the yes/no variety, and there’s always an additional option on the ballot paper to re-open discussions and negotiations. Even the question to be posed is formulated only after debate and consultation, and the referendums themselves happen after a long period of debate.

But of course, back in real life, we had a ‘debate’ before the Brexit vote. But was it a ‘fair’ debate? Was it honest and open?

Let’s be realistic: a completely fair debate is practically impossible to achieve

Let’s be realistic: a completely fair debate is practically impossible to achieve, since what we see as constituting ‘fair’ is so subjective. But if we can have an honest and open debate, then for most people, we’ll be pretty close to achieving fairness.

Fact checking claims made by all sides

But how to have that honest and open debate? There are already many examples of (semi-)independent fact-checking bodies around the world, can it really be so hard to set one up for such a significant event as a referendum?

Imagine if a respected independent body had checked the claims made during the Brexit campaigning—the debate would have immediately become more factual, politicians and news media (knowing they’d be caught out sooner rather than later and concerned for their reputation) would avoid at least the worst exaggerations.


While we definitely want and need the average person on the street to be engaging in debate and discussion, not everyone has the skills or time to devote to really understanding the arguments.

In a representational democracy we ask our representatives to consider the arguments and make an informed decision. In addition to this debate in parliament the mainstream media, political parties and social-media bubbles all contribute to ‘pre-digesting’ arguments, delivering handy soundbites for us to swallow and regurgitate. But allowing ourselves to go along with whatever viewpoint our favourite information (opinion)  sources has chosen for us isn’t the way to have that fair debate.

But there are ways for us to hear the arguments from all sides, to hear reactions to those arguments and to come up with our own responses. Parliament could, in theory be one of those places for showcasing reasonable discussion, but as I’ve pointed out this rarely happens. And even if discussions in parliament were reasonable, honest and open, the system we have means that MPs then vote immediately (usually as instructed by their party) and don’t first check in with their constituents.

Citizens’ Juries on the other hand are about holding an informed debate with the aim of influencing corporate, national or international policies. The format is similar to a court hearing, with expert witness and a randomly selected jury. Such jury systems provide the time, the support and the information that we need to consider complex questions.

In the context of something like a referendum the proceedings of one or more Citizens’ Juries could be broadcast, allowing the general population to hear information, the opinions and the debates and to form their own opinion. The Juries could act as a kind of pre-debate very different from the pre-digested opinions that we currently have to filter.

Willingness to listen

Finally, how do we achieve a widespread willingness to consider arguments that are at odds with our own initial positions? How do we consider the needs and desires of people who we don’t know, who live not in our own street, or town, but at the other end of the country? How do we react if ‘the other side’ refuses to engage properly?

If there’s no willingness to listen then all the fact-checking, pre-debates and honest information in the world aren’t going to help.

There’s simply no easy solution to this problem. Personally, I think that if we want to get to a place where we can actively listen and honestly debate then we’ll first need to take a hard look at the huge inequalities in our society, and also the way that our society is actually deeply undemocratic. Only once we’ve achieved a basic level of equality and fairness will be able to be fair and respectful to others outside our own demographic.

Real democracy takes practice
As individuals and small groups we can already start making our society more democratic. We need to practice real democracy using tools such as consensus decision making in smaller groups–such as workplaces, social and political groups.

A willingness to listen and an ability to engage in fair, honest and open debate aren’t things that we’ll be able to do next week–it’s going to take lots of time and lots of practice to gain the experience that allows us to be in a position where fair decisons can happen.

But regardless of how or whether Brexit happens we need to improve communication and equality in our society–because a society that makes the majority into a minority to be ignored and mocked will never be at ease with itself.

Further reading

Interested in more inclusive ways of making decisons?
cover of A Consensus HandbookA Consensus Handbook: Co-operative decision making for activists, co-ops and communities by Seeds For Change
AK Presslogo Active DistributionAmazon UK Amazon US
apple iTuneskoboscribdnook

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